On Reflexivity (again…)

This post is partly motivated by the fact that the original reflexivity thread has grown rather too long, and partly by the need for me to make a ‘new beginning’ as regards my understanding of what reflexivity is and how it bears on my research. I am conscious that my current understanding diverges somewhat from the direction in which the original reflexivity thread seems to be developing, and this is why I felt it would be more helpful to present my thoughts in a new post. This is, to a great extent, a personal response to the challenge of understanding reflexivity, i.e. it is not intended as an authoritative account, and I am not suggesting that it is relevant to anyone else’s analytical needs. That said, I think it makes sense in the context of my study.

This ‘new beginning’ draws very loosely on Activity Theory – at least in its earliest and simplest formulations. This realisation came to me at a late stage in the writing process, i.e. I didn’t explicitly set out to draw linkages between reflexivity and AT. However, AT seems to offer a terminology and framework that are descriptively useful for my purposes, so I will be using said tools in this post while making no further claims of affinity between the reflexivity thinking and AT. I will also be drawing on postings from the previous thread – some by me and some by others – which will cause some repetition. However, this may help in a sense by bringing together in one place various ideas that seem to work well together.

My feeling is that in any situation involving research there must be at least three elements: something that is researched, a researcher or group of researchers and the actual process of doing research, all of which interact in different ways to produce a new understanding of whatever it is we are studying. In the schematic that follows, I have tried to use parts of an activity system as a framework against which to place my reflexivity thoughts. The terms I will be using in the post are typeset in bold, and I have placed in brackets roughly equivalent terms derived from AT.


Most obviously, the outcome is derived from the interaction between the research and the researched (instrument <–> object). This is as simple as saying that the findings of my study will be influenced to an extent by my methods, sample etc. In my narrative, I will need to account for such influences, which is I think fairly uncontroversial. It is also fairly uncontroversial that the very act of conducting research will influence whatever is being researched, and  will therefore indirectly influence my understanding. In my study, for instance, it is quite likely that class observation will lead to some pressure on the teachers to design and implement ‘showcase’ lessons. This needn’t be a problem, as long as one recognises what is being observed and its causes and accounts for it in the data. I am not sure that all this would traditionally fall under the ‘reflexivity’ heading, but it seems to cohere with what follows.

The consensus that seems to be developing in the original reflexivity thread is that the interaction between the researcher and the research process (subject <–> instrument) is also analytically significant and may have to be acknowledged, assuming that we choose to adopt a reflexive outlook. Using my own research as an example once more, it might be useful for me to make explicit how my own personal choices, preferences etc. shape the research process, since they exert an indirect influence on the outcome. If I want to work reflexively, I need to make explicit to myself and readers: what difference does it make on my understanding that this study is carried out by me (rather than someone else)?

I would posit that in addition to these two dimensions of reflexivity, one may also want to consider the interaction between the researcher and the researched (subject <–> object). This seems particularly important in those cases where the researcher happens to have multiple roles in the setting (e.g. Juup and Richard acting as researchers and course tutors in the DRC). Turning again to my study, I need to acknowledge my prior ‘impact’ on the language school I am currently investigating: in what ways is the outcome shaped by the fact that I have designed some of the courses they are using, or the fact that I influenced staffing decisions? What impact do my pre-existing relationships with the research participants have on the information they share and on the ways I interpret it?

Finally, I think that we could usefully examine the ways in which the outcome of the research interacts with whatever is researched and its context (outcome <–> activity). This stems form my belief that the social world (unlike the physical one) is shaped by our understandings, i.e. our conceptualisations are constitutive acts rather than merely acts of representation. When my understanding of whatever is happening in the language school is communicated back to the people there, the language school is changed, however subtly. Of course, as Juup pointed out at some point in the original thread, this change is not deferred until the end of the research project (unless I decide to hold back on feedback, but why would one want to do that?). What happens then is that the object of the research changes constantly, in part because of the research activity; I also change, and so does the way I conduct my research. So a fourth question I need to reflect on is: how does my developing understanding shape my research, myself and everything around me?

In the preceding paragraphs I have consciously avoided making an explicit distinction between reflexivity and reflection. The truth is, I am not sure how to make this distinction, possibly because I am not sure that such a distinction is useful to my thinking at this stage. What seems to be more important is increasing my own awareness of all these interconnections between researcher and researching, researching and researched, researcher and researched, how all these influence my understanding and visa versa. I am not sure whether reflection would be the best or the only response to this challenge (can it be empirically addressed?), or what narrative would be most appropriate for sharing this awareness. But I feel that I have at least made a small step forward…


  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    On reflection, perhaps one way of re-visualising this triangle for Participatory Action Research approaches would be to view the investigator and the other participants as ‘researchers’ and reserve ‘researched’ for the phenomenon. So, for instance, in Magdalena’s case, ‘researcher’ would describe her and the teachers she works with, and ‘researched’ could describe her intervention. Since this is Action Research, the Outcome would not be mere ‘understanding’, but rather teacher empowerment (?). Perhaps Magdalena can comment on this when she’s back from her travels…

  • Richard Fay

    Thanks Achilleas 🙂

  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    I’ve uploaded a new version, which replaces research with researching. I have retained researched in the ‘object’ position though, in order to preserve some of the abstractness of the original conceptualisation. I agree with Magdalena that this does not apply too well to participatory research: in addition to Magdalena’s reservations about the term researched, I am not sure that it would be helpful to draw a distinction between the researcher and other participants in the context of a participatory study. In this case, and others, I guess one would have to re-interpret the visual in ways that are more appropriate to their specific needs – which is why I think it would be best for my visual to be more abstract.

  • Richard Fay

    Could you re-do the visual for us with these re-nuancings?

  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    I see what you mean, Magdalena. In writing ‘researched’ I was thinking more of the phenomenon under investigation, rather than the actual participants. You are right, of course, ‘participants’ is a much better term for conveying the people-centred nature of some projects, and would fit in much better in the tradition of participatory research.

    On reflection, I am also wondering whether ‘research’ could be replaced by ‘researching’ to highlight the fact that it’s a dynamic process, and to avoid confusion with previous usage.

  • Magdalena De Stefani

    Hi Achilleas, that was very interesting 🙂 I hadn’t seen the connection with AT before but it does make sense. You have teased it out very well!

    I think in the previous thread, when we referred to the influence of the researcher on the research and vice versa, the term ‘research’ included those involved. But it is probably much clearer with your triangle. I am not sure the term ‘researched’ would fit my study because it is action research and it seems more accurate to me to describe those involved as ‘participants’. But even if we need slight changes in terminology depending on the kind of research we do, this triangle makes a lot of sense to me, thanks for sharing!

  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    Thank you very much for saying that, Richard. I am conscious of the fact that this is still very much ‘in progress’ – there are bits and pieces that I am not too happy about but I will work them out eventually. One thing I am not too happy about is the rigidity that AT seems to impose on the whole system (for me ‘it’s more of a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff, but I can’t get that image across so effectively). There was a good example of how AT can be less-than-helpful in an early version of this post. In the embedded diagram of that version, I had placed a unidirectional arrow between the triangle and the outcome: This is of course consistent with ‘classic’ conceptualisations of AT, but completely against the point I was trying to make.

  • Richard Fay

    Very interesting. Lots to mull over but I found myself nodding often as I read this, and this is me who is fed up with AT triangles 🙂

    Many thanks Achilleas.